Sleeping, Torah and triathlon

Yes, I have not posted anything in a long time, as some of my friends have pointed out. No excuses. Sorry. But no promises that you’ll see another one for a long time either.

In any case, I came across two interesting tidbits this week that combine my Talmud study with my Triathlon addiction. First some background, when I got into triathlon about 7 years ago, I began to realize how demanding the sport was in terms of time. I needed more time to work out, so the easiest place to steal time from was sleep. I would get up early in the morning, or work out in the evening and then at night finish up the work I needed to do. I figured if I needed an extra hour a day for training (or more) I would just sleep an hour or so less at night.

You can imagine how this went. I quickly realized that the more I work out, the more sleep I need. When I started training for Ironman the amount of sleep I needed was crazy. Indeed, as I read some books about professional athletes, I learned that some of them were legendary sleepers, men and women who could sleep 10-12 hours a day. Their athletic gains were made as much by this ability as by their hard workouts. Since then, I’ve made a consistent effort to sleep as much as possible. When the kids are in bed, and I’ve done my share of the housework, I’m off to bed, even if it’s only 8 or 8:30 at night.

But I’ve also realized that sleep is the key to many other things as well, especially the life of the mind. A few days ago I came across this article in the Times which basically claims that sleep is the when your brain physically rehabilitates itself. And then, while working on my Daf Shevui commentary I came across the following passage in the Talmud:

Rav said, It is forbidden to sleep by day more than the sleep of a horse.

And what is the sleep of a horse? Sixty breaths.

Abaye said, The sleep of the Master  is as that of Rav, and that of Rav as that of Rabbi and that of Rabbi as of David, and that of David as of a horse, and that of a horse is sixty breaths.

Abaye slept [by day] as long as it takes to go up from Pumbeditha to Be Kube.

R. Joseph applied to him the verse, “How long will you sleep, O sluggard, when will you arise out of your sleep” (Proverbs 6:9).

There is a debate here about the legitimacy of sleep — most of the sages seem to think it’s a waste of time. In terms of Torah — it is bittul Torah. This is what a lot of my friends seem to think and it’s what my son already tells me — Abba, I don’t like to sleep because I can’t do anything else when I sleep. But Abaye disagrees — he would take long naps during the day, even at the risk of incurring a rebuke from his teacher R. Joseph. Now I don’t know how long Abaye slept at night, but Abaye seems to have realized that sleeping was the key to his intellectual acumen. Anyone who knows any Talmud knows that Abaye was no slouch. I would certainly place him in the top 5 among the amoraim, and one could argue that he should be placed in the top 2 (I’d keep Rava at number one). Abaye realized that sleeping was good for him. It wasn’t bitul Torah because while we sleep our brains and bodies are growing stronger. It was hizzuk Torah to sleep.

So if you’re looking for my advice, go sleep. Stop bragging that you are so busy you only sleep five, four hours a night. To me that sounds like someone bragging that they smoke, or drive without a seat belt. Seriously, don’t tell me that you’re so busy in life that you can’t sleep more than four hours. You are paying the price for this bad habit, even if you don’t know it. I tell my kids all the time–the four keys to health are –1) Eat real food; 2) Exercise; 3) Don’t smoke; 4) Sleep a lot (the fact that they don’t listen to me is irrelevant). A healthy mind and body is one that gets enough sleep at night. This is what I learned from triathlon and this is what I’ve learned from Abaye.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Joshua Kulp is the Senior Scholar at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has rabbinic ordination from Hadar and a PhD from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of three books, The Shechter Haggadah, and Reconstructing the Talmud, v. 1 and 2. He lives in Modiin with his wife and four children. When not writing, teaching or studying, he can be found out running, biking or swimming or drinking delicious Hazy IPA's.
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